Harsh, Open, and Compelling: Photos of the West

Front range of the Rockies, south of Denver. Residential and commercial property crowd into the front range.

Front Range of the Rockies, south of Denver. Residential and commercial property crowd into the Front Range.

On the pages of many outdoor or hunting magazines, photos of the West show mostly places in the Rocky Mountains. As a boy in western New York, I spent hours reading those magazines and came to believe that the West and the Rockies were one in the same. I was 24 years old when I made my first trip west. At that time, I taught high school math, and when school ended in June, I packed some essentials on a motorcycle and headed out. Among other things, I learned that the West was more than the Rockies.

Much of the West is open space: mesas, broad basins, rolling or flat plains, rugged ridges and escarpments, and mile after mile of semi-arid land and occasional desert. The federal government owns huge amounts of it. In Utah and Nevada, for example, federal ownership is 65 and 85 percent of the land, respectively. With meager amounts of rain, and with forests restricted mostly to the mountains, a person may rest an eye on sights 30, 40 or more miles away. And there are dangers. An unrelenting sun, a surprised snake, some huge rocks, or a sudden cliff or crevice may kill someone stranded without food, water, or help.

All the above came to mind as my wife and I traveled west early this summer. We drove across Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada to visit friends in Reno. The West—the open space—unfolds gradually when driving through Kansas. Crossing into Colorado, towns seem still farther apart. Yet it’s not readily noticeable on Interstate 70 because interchanges with gas stations, stores, and motels appear regularly, offering an illusion of widespread human activity. Last year I wrote about this region, called the High Plains, and posted photographs of the land and its inhabitants.

The Front Range of the Rockies appears on the horizon many miles east of Denver, and it’s impossible to avoid anticipating their rugged beauty. Past Denver and the Front Range, the  country opens gradually into the dry lands of western Colorado and Utah. We dropped off the Interstate to follow the Colorado River into Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. In central Utah we left the interstate again to travel US 50, dubbed the loneliest road in America. We passed the northern end of Sevier Lake, which was dry as far as we could tell, then drove through mile after mile of dry range country into and through Nevada. In Utah and Nevada the sense of space and harshness is most dramatic. In truth, the Front Range of the Rockies is a respite between the open country of the High Plains and the often desolate inland region of basins, plateaus and smaller mountain ranges.

The following photo gallery hopefully gives a sense of the quiet, austere, open country that dominates so much of the West. Click on the first photo to enter the gallery, then hit escape or click on the X in the upper left corner to exit.

Next post will be about the Pacific Coast.